Life on Another Planet

March 26, 2013 | By | 7 Comments

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I learn firsthand something I’ve suspected for a long time. There are, indeed, people who live outside of the United States of America. The life is different. So different, I feel as though I might as well be on another planet. In this case, that planet’s name is “Colombia”.

I come to visit a friend who works for the US embassy. We tool around in a borrowed car, see the countryside and catch up on life. One of the first things that stands out to me is men on the side of the road going to the bathroom in plain sight. I witness this about 8 times in two days. I don’t only ask about cultural differences, I experience them.

We talk about the last time we took a vacation together. It was at the end of 2007. My friend says we are five years more experienced. I say we were five years younger. Five years better looking. Five years more hopeful about what our lives would look like in five years.

When we stop, my friend does all the talking. Contrary to what some might think, Colombia does not have a high percentage of English speakers. I listen, smile and then wave goodbye. At the end of each conversation, I ask my friend to repeat the conversation in English. I comprehend certain things, but only fragments.

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The only word I use is “gracias”. I say it timidly at first, but with more confidence as time goes on. When my friend speaks to the people, I pretend to know exactly what they’re saying. It is like the times I used to walk around Harvard as an underclassman at Boston University. I didn’t go to Harvard, just like I don’t speak Spanish. But for all anyone I encountered knew, I went to Harvard back then just like I speak Spanish now. If all the world’s a stage, I want to be sure to do my part.

We pass by restaurant after restaurant. These are not chains, but local folks trying to make a living. In some cases, uncooked meat hangs in the open as if it is a decoration. It is enough to make anyone want to become a vegetarian. I don’t know what I’m eating, whether by title or sight. I trust my friend when he tells me something is good. Most of the time, he is right.

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Even the fruit is different. I try at least a handful of fruits I never knew existed. Each fascinates with its textures, taste and appearance. Eating one is like seeing a new color when you thought you had already seen every shade.

The creativity of God is also on full display in the landscape. We see rolling hills and mountains with features I don’t have the vocabulary to describe. Like my father when we visited the White Mountains as kids in New Hampshire, my friend can’t stop commenting on what he is witnessing. “Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful“, he repeats.

There are cactus plants, museums with Dinosaur artifacts and even Ostrich farms. There are random cows, horses and donkeys on the side of the road everywhere. The livestock is unguarded, unfenced, in the middle of nowhere and seemingly way too easy to steal.

The people find different ways to entertain themselves. One man, having no other desirable alternative, lays down in the front of his lawn to watch the cars go by. It’s like he is looking out at the ocean, only the cars are the ocean and there is no sand or water.

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We end up at a town 5 hours outside of Bogota. The square is one big party. A mother kicks a soccer ball with her two boys. Bands sing and dance. Merchants peddle their wares. Girls walk around no doubt looking for boys. Boys walk around no doubt looking for girls.

I am a complete and total stranger. I look different from everyone else. I talk different than everyone else. The people look at us and wonder how we ended up here and what we’re doing. I wonder the same thing. I don’t feel lost, I am lost. Somehow, knowing how lost I am makes me feel less lost at all. There is a newfound focus to my existence.

The church is the center of every community and shrines to the virgin Mary can be found at almost every corner. The poor come filing into church looking for hope. Given the conditions and massive unemployment problems, I wonder what hope there is for some of them, what hope they are able to find and what it is that keeps them going.

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There are different sections of the country. One is known for its cheese. Another is known for the bricks it produces. Still another is full of handwoven baskets from the fields of reeds nearby. We stop to buy some of these baskets from one of the locals.

At first, the seller is apprehensive and maybe a little afraid of us. We are both well over six feet tall. We are white. She is alone. For all she knows, neither of us speak the language. Instead of bartering, my friend pays full price. He knows he can get the items for less, but wants to bless the maker of these gifts. He pays that equivalent of about $30 for an assortment of hampers and baskets. As she sees that we mean no harm and don’t wish to take advantage, her countenance lifts. This is clearly a fantastic sale for this woman. As we leave, she gives us a handful of cattails as free gifts. She keeps telling us “God bless you” in Spanish. We have made her day. Or, has she made ours?

We enter a hospital in one of the rural towns, looking for a friend of my friend. Like the hotel we stayed at the night before, the hospital is stripped of all luxuries inside and bears little resemblance to anything I’m used to. The people inside the waiting room stare at me, trying to figure out why I’m there and what I’m all about. I stare back at them, trying to understand who they are. We don’t even hide the fact that we are staring. We are each searching for something. What are we searching for? I’m not sure. Like babies and parents looking at each other or deer looking at headlights, maybe we are all just trying to figure out what in the world is going on.

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One question in particular eats away at me: Why would God pay any attention to my prayers when he has so many other billions of people to worry about – most of whom are much worse off? What is it about me that would attract God’s attention?

I think about how God’s love for us is personal. C.S. Lewis wrote, “Why else were individuals created, but that God, loving all infinitely, should love each differently?” Perhaps God’s love for each individual is as unique as each culture and countryside He created.

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I thank God for his creativity. Though the mountains here don’t look anything like the mountains in New Hampshire, they are both majestic. Though the fruit here doesn’t taste anything like the fruit in New Hampshire, each is delicious in its own way. Though the people here are different than the people back home, the image of God remains.

I remember praying in college that God would open my eyes to beauty in the world and “sweep His colors through my life”. Looking back, I see how God has continued to answer that prayer in different ways than I would have expected. I have been given the gift of live. I am a unique member of a strange and unique world. I play a part in history and God’s story, no matter how small a role.

I comprehend certain things, but only fragments. As the Apostle Paul once said, “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.” All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God knows me completely. The earth is full of His glory.

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  1. Jana says:

    Loved reading this. Can’t wait to read more. Have a blast. (Can’t help but giggle thinking of you two, the tallest dudes in the country no doubt, walking around together down there!) 😉

    • Mark says:

      Ha! Thanks Jana-Banana 🙂 Right now, I am engaged in discussions with the cleaning lady which mostly involve me saying “no comprendo”.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Loved reading your blog. what an experience. we r so proud of you. love, mom & dad ps give that other big dude a giant hug.

  3. Anonymous says:

    This must be a family read….slim shady

  4. Anonymous says:

    You totally rock dude!

  5. Mark says:

    Thanks for the comments everyone!

    Sincerely,
    Slim

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